The National Institutes of Health released a statement Monday in support of a well-respected and long-standing primate research program within the NIH intramural program that has been the subject of an ongoing PETA campaign. The focus of the research program, under the direction of Dr. Stephen J. Suomi, is on:
“examining the behavioral and biological development of non-human primates. Primary objectives are to understand how genetic and environmental factors interact to affect cognitive development, as well as develop interventions that can alter developmental trajectories of individuals whose specific genetic and experiential background put them at risk for adverse developmental outcomes. These studies cannot be carried out in humans and require the use of animal studies to carefully separate experience, genetic, and environmental factors. Ultimately, these findings assist researchers in identifying humans most likely to suffer negative effects in at-risk situations and develop behavioral and drug therapies to improve negative outcomes early in life.”
The NIH statement notes the high value of the research program, as assessed by an external board of scientific experts who concluded that the program:
“has achieved world class, enduring contributions to our understanding of the developmental, genetic, and environmental origins of risk and vulnerability in early life,” and “could be a truly remarkable point of departure for a unified theory describing the biological embedding of early social conditions and their developmental consequences.”
NIH’s Response to PETA
NIH’s response to the PETA campaign was thoughtful, thorough, and transparent. The response includes a positive assessment of the value of the research in terms of human health relevance and advances in scientific understanding. It addresses why the research in conducted in monkeys and why it is not possible to use alternative methods, or to conduct the work in humans.
The response also includes a serious, fact-informed consideration of the animals’ welfare. Detailed responses from two of NIH’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees that conducted an extensive evaluation of the research address each element of the concerns raised by PETA and the scientists supporting them (including, Professors John Gluck, Psychology, University of New Mexico; Agustin Fuentes Anthropology, Notre Dame; and Barbara King, Anthropology, William and Mary College; Lawrence Hansen, Pathology, UC-San Diego).
Furthermore, in response to PETA’s complaint, the NIH undertook an exhaustive review via its Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). Comprehensive responses to each of the concerns raised by PETA are contained in the reports posted on the NIH website. For those who seek more information, facts, and substantive background to inform their consideration of the conduct of the research and the animals’ welfare, we encourage you to read the NICHD IACUC response posted here: NICHD 12.17.15 ACUC_Memo_2_121914
Taken together, NIH’s responses provide a strong demonstration of a high level of care and consideration of animal welfare, as well as the risk and benefit balances that are inherent in the conduct of research with both human and nonhuman animals. The response clearly vindicates Dr. Suomi and provides welcome public acknowledgement by the NIH of the importance of his work.
As welcome as the NIH responses are, they are not, however, responses that will satisfy PETA’s absolutist goal of ending all use of nonhuman animals for any purpose, including animal research, but also food, companionship, entertainment, or other uses.
PETA’s complaint about this and other research included language about animal welfare and about alternatives to animal research in order to achieve the same scientific goals. In reality, however, PETA’s position—like that of all absolutists—is not centrally concerned with either viable alternatives to animal studies or with animal welfare. Rather, the position is that no human use of other animals—any animals, whether photogenic and appealing in popular campaigns, or not—is justified, regardless of the outcome or harms. (See here and here for additional discussion.)
As a result, it would seem that no response NIH could give to PETA would be satisfactory unless it was to end all animal research altogether. Or, in the case of a particular project or lab, the only response satisfactory to PETA or other absolutists would be to end that project, or close that lab. At some level then the question to ask may be about the cost: benefit of such responses.
By contrast to the absolute viewpoint, aspects of ethical consideration of animal research that matter to the majority of the broad public and to the scientific community are evidenced by their instantiation in the laws of a democratic society and in regulatory and community standards, as well as in individuals’ own assessment. These include concern with significant public health challenges and appreciation for the critical role of basic scientific understanding as the foundation for a broad range of advances that benefit the public, other animals, and the environment. They also include acknowledgement of accomplishments and breakthroughs for human and nonhuman health that are accomplished via animal research. At the same time, they include selection of alternatives where possible, attention to animal’s care and welfare, continuing refinements of procedures in accord with evidence, risk and benefit justification, external oversight, and expert scientific evaluation.
In the case of the current NIH campaign and other campaigns against specific animal research there is a well-known pattern. A group like PETA focuses on a research project—usually one involving animals such as cats, dogs, or primates that will capture broad public interest. The group then uses the highly responsive system of public institutions and government agencies to obtain information, call for investigation, and launch media campaigns to elicit public concern (and donations). The campaigns are typically based in some form of oversimplification and misrepresentation of the research, treatment of animals, availability of alternatives, or value of the science. In the face of public inquiry or media attention, public research institution under attack typically offer a response focused on the scientific question, accomplishments, and absence of non-animal alternatives and on the animals’ welfare and oversight.
The problem with that pattern is that it ignores the fact that PETA and others’ campaigns are, in many ways, a reflection of a conflict between fundamentally different philosophical viewpoints. These differences cannot be resolved simply by ensuring scientific advances, careful risk and benefit assessment and balance, or high standards for laboratory animal welfare. All the care, training, accreditation, and external oversight in the world will not address the concerns of individuals or groups who are absolutely opposed to the use of animals in research and who believe that no matter the benefit, use of animals in research cannot be justified. Nor will such approaches address those who believe — wrongly, in most cases — that there are existing alternatives to the use of animals in research. Furthermore, each additional layer of oversight and regulation introduced in an attempt to appease those who cannot be appeased may well add substantial administrative hurdles and costs to the scientific effort without achieving meaningful improvements for animal welfare.
From that perspective, and in light of yet another PETA campaign that has resulted in a significant and extensive response from public agencies, the question becomes whether – and what – might be a better path forward. At present, the same path does not look like one that is productive to improving scientific research. Rather, the prediction would be that PETA and other groups will continue to use the transparency and responsiveness of public research institutions to lend steam to popular opinion campaigns that then target individual scientists, laboratories, and institutions. In turn, a great deal of time and energy will go into investigations, responses, and reports that are likely to yield little in terms of animal welfare, little public benefit, little progress to ending animal research, yet potentially high harm to science. At the very least these responses consume resources that would otherwise be devoted to scientific research or practical enforcement of regulations to protect animal welfare.
As we welcome the NIH’s support for Dr. Suomi we must also ask ourselves a question: How many more cases like this will there be before the leaders of the scientific community take action to prevent the regulatory system from becoming primarily a tool of the animal rights propaganda machine?
Speaking of Research